Want to cut greenhouse gas emissions? Look to digital technologies

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(Thomas Millot, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Börje Ekholm, Chief Executive Officer, Ericsson


Tackling climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity. Over the next decade, the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) – particularly 5G, the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) – will provide essential tools for increasing efficiency in the economy and preparing for a post-fossil fuel society.

But can we do it? And if so, how?

Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change delivered its special report on the effects of global warming of 1.5 °C and above. The report clearly lays out the difference between 1.5 °C and 2°C warming and emphasizes the urgent need to avoid crossing tipping points in Earth’s life support systems.

To give us a chance to limit global warming to this level, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2020 and then fall by half every decade, corresponding to 7% annual reductions as a global average. We must take unprecedented action to achieve this at all levels of society, including nations, cities, industries and individuals.

Accelerating Climate Action

A 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found we have until 2030 – just 11 more years – to avert climate change.

The run-up to 2020 is a crucial period for delivering sufficient climate action to limit global warming to 1.5°C, as countries move to expand their climate commitments.

To help meet this global challenge, the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Sustainable Development Impact summit has made Accelerating Climate Action one of four focus areas.

Following the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit this month, this meeting will bring together stakeholders to cap global warming at 1.5°C through innovative partnerships and smart technologies. The action areas include heavy industries and transport, energy innovation, nature-based climate solutions, restoring ocean health and the role cities, among others.

The Exponential Climate Action Roadmap

Last year, Ericsson joined forces with organizations including Future Earth, the Finnish future fund Sitra, WWF, Stockholm Resilience Center, Mission 2020 and others to explore whether halving global CO2e emissions by 2030 is possible, and if so, what would be the possible role of information and communications technology (ICT).

The resulting report – the Exponential Climate Action Roadmap – was launched at the Global Climate Action Summit in 2018. It explores how a 50% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 can be implemented across key sectors of the global economy, specifically energy supply, industry, buildings, transport, food consumption and agriculture and forestry. We conclude that halving emissions by 2030 is indeed achievable – and the digital technology sector is critical to achieving the goal, both through its capacity to directly reduce emissions and as an advocate for climate action.

To keep up with current developments and trends and to further strengthen the analysis, the roadmap partners are publishing on 19 September an updated version of the roadmap, Exponential Climate Action Roadmap 1.5, together with a high-level report, Meeting the 1.5°C Climate Ambition. The content and messages are as valid as ever.

Of the solutions identified in the roadmap, one-third are enabled by existing ICT solutions. These solutions correspond to 15% of global emissions, which is more than the footprint of the EU and US combined. This can be compared to the ICT industry’s own footprint, which has stayed flat for several years at a level of 1.4% of overall global emissions in spite of exponential data growth.

ICT can reduce global GHG emissions by 15%.
Image: Ericsson Mobility Report

Policy suggestions to achieve decarbonization

In contrast to more tech-centric reports, the Exponential Climate Action Roadmap embeds technology in a much wider societal framework. We believe technology, when applied to climate solutions, has the power to transform society. But achieving decarbonization at sufficient speed and scale – while limiting negative societal side effects – will require new policy frameworks, financing models, business models, coherent demand and supply side transformation and climate leadership at all levels.

An important element of the Exponential Climate Action Roadmap is therefore its policy study, which includes both general and sector-specific items. From a broadband perspective, the most important ones include:

  • Shift from visions to concrete roadmaps and strategies at all levels. This means implementing coherent policy packages that support technologies and business models for deep decarbonization, while suppressing emissions and carbon intensive processes.
  • Digitalization and climate strategies must become one and the same thing, with extensive mutual reinforcement.
  • Circular economy, digital economy and sharing economy models should be optimized and incentivized for climate.
  • Exponential climate action roadmaps for industries, businesses, cities, regions and nations should be developed.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

How can we replace high-emission activities?

As companies, we can lead by example by setting sharp climate targets grounded in science and cutting the emissions of our own operations and products, as well as working with our supply chains and investing in renewable energy supply. The ICT industry is already the world’s largest purchaser of renewable electricity, making it an important demand-side player.

But while society is largely focusing on suppressing activities with high emissions, we must keep raising our ambition to develop solutions to replace them. These solutions often bring huge societal benefits in terms of sustainable development as well as business opportunities.

At Ericsson, we have cut our emissions by 50% and we are working to meet further reduction targets, as well as demonstrating how our products and solutions can help make halving global emissions achievable.

Now, we urge other companies and policymakers to join the quest. The time to act is now. In just over a decade, we must cut the world’s carbon emissions by half, and our industry needs to show the way.

Explore the Exponential Climate Action Roadmap to take a deeper dive, particularly the chapter on Exponential Technology and Solutions. Join us for a live discussion at the Sustainable Development Impact Summit on Sunday, September 22nd. Or, listen to a webinar on the roadmap, featuring Johan Rockström, Director at Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and co-chair Future Earth, among other participants.

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